The Earthsea trilogy

Last month I listened to A wizard of Earthsea, The tombs of Atuan, and The farthest shore on tape during my commute to work.  (The only other piece by Ursula K. Le Guin that I am familiar with is the short story “The ones who walk away from Omelas,” a sort of nightmare meditation on Utilitarian ethics.)

Because of my unfortunate attitude about “series” and “trilogies” in particular, I might never have read these on my own.  I was driven largely by the fact that my library system (like most) has fewer and fewer books on audiocassettes — CDs, MP3s, and downloads dominate the library audiobook market.  Someone who drives a car from 1996 with a cassette deck has to settle for what is available.  I lucked out so far with good recordings of Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bellairs’ The face in the frost, and Asprin’s Another fine myth, but the fantasy audiobook selection is pretty thin on cassette.  Anyway all three of the main Earthsea books were available so I listened to them, and boy am I glad I did.

The Earthsea novels are generally classed as “young adult” (or “Bildungsroman” in cataloger jargon) as they are mainly coming-of-age stories, describing some character’s growth along the border of childhood and adulthood.  (Interestingly, librarians and booksellers have been noticing that “YA” or young adult books have been attracting decidedly not so young adult audiences for some time.)

The three novels all have distinct themes which readers of any age can appreciate.  The first deals with a central character’s acceptance of the terrible responsibility of a wizard in Earthsea (which I suppose is a metaphor for the responsibilities of adulthood anywhere); the second is an exploration of faith and guilt — especially misplaced faith and guilt over evil committed in the name of piety; the last is a bit heavy-handed but also a powerfully wrought tale of the inevitability of death and largely interprets morality in terms of how one accepts the bald fact of death.

As is no doubt obvious from these themes, the trilogy is also a series of morality tales.  What may be unexpected in a genre so heavily dominated by Christian allegory is that the tales take a very Eastern — ultimately Taoist, I’d say — perspective.

Although the books are old enough to be “classics” in the genre, I don’t want to give away too much of the plots.  Though the books did not make the cut for Gygax’s “Appendix N” in the Dungeon Masters Guide (that list itself is overly fetishized anyway…), there is plenty that hits on RPG tropes and perhaps inspired some of the things in D&D: the Tombs of the second novel fits most of the tropes of a “dungeon,” being dark, labyrinthine, treasure-filled, and home to malignant forces.  The third book includes a lich-like character in the form of a wizard who actively seeks to prolong his life by living on after death.  There are very few monsters, but the dragons which feature the first and third book are compelling and reasonably unique.  Magic items appear but do not overshadow the action, and the wizards are somewhat reluctant to use their powers — the responsible ones are, anyway.

The setting of Earthsea is uniquely interesting, as it is decidedly not the standard “Western fairy tale/Nordic” setting you find in most traditional fantasy but something else entirely.  None of the cultures are thin copies of real civilizations, and the people are racially and culturally diverse to an extent I have not encountered in fantasy from the 1970s.  The vast seas dividing the lands and peoples create an excellent campaign setting, as the adventurers could island-hop and be marooned, ship wrecked, etc. to keep things varied.

But I wouldn’t read these books for D&D inspiration alone.  The writing is excellent; the characters are compelling.  It says a lot about the writer that despite the magic, dragons, and swordsmen in her world, the books are able to focus mostly on internal conflicts rather than external battles and yet remain exciting and interesting.  The writing is often achingly beautiful.  As I listened to the books, I was conscious of the writer’s presumable didactic goals (this is for young adult readers after all), and I felt that there is much to appreciate both as a reader (and part of the intended audience) and as a sort of spectator on Le Guin’s effort to impart a lesson to the reader.  I get a similar feeling sometimes from the better children’s books I read to my daughter, and it is a beautiful thing.

Published in: on February 10, 2014 at 12:00 pm  Comments (8)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The idea of the Cult of the Eaten One from Tombs of Atuan still gives me chills.

    The saddest part of Earthsea is that all of its adaptations have served to undermine what makes it such an important work of fantasy in regards to exploring cultural dissonance and gender relations.

  2. Ah, Mike, you bring a level of analysis to the fantasy you read that I would never subject them to. Sometimes a wizard is just a wizard. But, I encountered Leguin once–can’t really say I met her, but I listened to her talk for over an hour, and I suspect all these didactic explorations of what it means to be and adult, accept death, and so forth really were designed into the fiction. Fortunately, you won’t see any of that crap in what I write. 🙂

    • Well YA fiction is kind of an inherently didactic genre, or it used to be.
      I can’t say whether I’m over-analyzing stuff or not … part of me wants to say it doesn’t matter what the author intended (this aesthetic theory goes back at least as far as Plato though it is sometimes derided as modern or postmodern mumbo-jumbo). Part of me also thinks most writers can’t help but sneak in their philosophies, and usually lie when they say they’re just writing stories. Like JRRT said he detested allegories. 🙂
      Anyhoo the Earthsea trilogy is worth a read, even if you want to just read it for the action and adventure and world-building.

  3. One of my all time favorite series. well worth reading most any day.

    And on a side note, I’ve finally figured out how to leave you a comment. Every time I try with WordPress it eats it and craps out my disappointments.

    • Cool, then we’re even. Evidently WordPress and Blogger freaking hate each other.

  4. The wizard that refused to die made a big impression on me. I don’t remember all the details, but the land of the dead reminded me of the dry, dusty lands of the dead from Gilgamesh, horrifying in a way the whole Diablo rivers of blood can never be. And I’m no expert, but I would be surprised if D&D’s lich did not largely originate in that selfish wizard.

    • Yes, the land of the dead was so horrific…especially when you consider that the book is about how death must be accepted. The mother and child Ged sees (who died together, but in death don’t even look at each other or seem aware of each other), and the mountain of pain, and the oppressive thirst and dust… but that takes some serious writers craft (or DM skill) to communicate properly so I don’t blame Diablo for using the cheap rivers of blood shtick.

  5. I’m glad you found and enjoyed the Earthsea books; I enjoyed them myself years ago.

    Just try to spare yourself the pain and never go past the third book. The fourth, Tehanu, is unfortunately message-fiction instead of a story and like most message-fiction ruins any characters and plot it has in order to bluntly hammer home its message.

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